Sunday, May 5, 2013

Weeks 4 and 5 of MOOC: Gender Through Comics

Attrition rates for online courses are fairly high.  In the years I worked in distance education and eLearning, we always knew that external incentives were a huge reason anyone signed up for a masters program online and why they would complete the program.  We didn't keep in-house stats when I was working at UT or ASU, as many students blended their learning between on-campus and online, but I believe in our cohort of 15 students to begin a unique program we designed, we only lost 3 of the 15 or so who started.

Massive Open Online Courses have an estimated retention rate of about 10%.

Depending on who you talk to, this is either a problem or it is nothing to worry about.  What's interesting is hearing the various excuses and pointing of fingers I've seen lobbed in my personal experience over the years - from "it doesn't matter that the students leave in droves, they came in to get what they needed and left" to "if the faculty can't hold the students' attention, that's really saying something about the faculty".

What nobody is apparently willing to say is that maybe we already have ample evidence that this isn't working as originally intended.  Moving the posts in the first quarter of the game turns it into Arena Football, it doesn't improve the NFL.

Look, if you have a TV show and if by week 10, you've lost 80 - 90% of your audience, your show is getting canceled. It doesn't really matter how great of a debut you had.  If your whole network loses 80-90% of every program it runs, everyone is getting fired and you're shutting down.  If you had a play, and by the time you closed the final curtain your formerly sold out house was left with 10% of the attendees wanly applauding, you'd figure maybe the place was on fire and nobody had told the cast and crew.

I find the idea that students are dipping into classes, getting what they need, and then exiting a naive and groundless assumption and, frankly, the sort of useless hand-waving that folks in higher ed are good at.  I suspect they know better, but it's something to say until they put together some actual data on what's happening.

Keep in mind - administrators in higher ed are under tremendous pressure to find ways to cut expenses and cost to students.  Outsourcing courses (and creating a registry for courses and a uniform credit system) are a way to offload some courses and enable students to receive credit from other universities a lot more easily.  And that's not a terrible idea.  I won't get into my tremendous discomfort for how this potentially translates into the possibility of supporting standardized testing for college graduates, but I am not, in theory, against transferring credit.  I just am not sure the math works out that MOOCs will be the cost-effective way to do this, or that the model of the MOOC will enable educators to assess student achievement in a way that universities accepting the credits would find satisfactory.*

As per dipping in and out of classes to get the data we need:  We have Google (heck, we have Bing).  We don't sign up for a class and then drop it in week 3 once we find out a few points and decide we're done.  If a person walking down the street wants information, there are 1000 easier ways to get that information than registering for a class.

In short, it seems highly more likely that once the initial honeymoon phase is over with and the class (often 15 weeks) becomes the slog most courses become, you're going to lose people who simply have no financial or personal investment.

What I'm getting around to is - its going to take some rethinking of the delivery mechanism for MOOCs to change before I think this works very well.  And making up excuses for why the theater is empty when the houselights came up isn't going to fix the fact that your show is a disaster.  It's called "rationalizing" or "refusing to acknowledge that maybe this isn't working as intended".

I'd point out that there are some tremendously successful programs out there for self-motivated learners, like the Great Courses program.

My course is only 6 weeks, so I'll finish it as best I can, which I'm doing at this point by sort of breezing through the lecture materials, reading transcripts rather than sitting through choppy/ awkward interviews, clicking on some of the extra materials, etc...  but not doing the actual reading (I'd feel worse, but it seems like very few of my classmates are doing the reading, and those who did - I question their reading comprehension skills).  I'm not reading past the first of many, many pages on any discussion board questions, and I'm certainly not writing anything of my own on the boards.  If I want to write my own blathering opinions that share my impotent rage - dammit, I have this blog.

Week 4 was centered around "femininity", and celebrated the many facets of how feminity can be portrayed, the challenges to the portrayal of feminine characters and the weakness of trying to find a single definition (kind of to the point of crippling the "discussion" in many ways).   The course sought to investigate how comics use various coded narrative structures, artistic choices, etc...  but that moving comics - especially superhero comics - past the male-dominated medium it has been is an uphill battle.

Week 5 centered around "masculinity", which basically found one model for masculinity (Batman) and everyone else (trying to be Batman).  And while it was agreed that Batman was terribly masculine, much chin scratching was had over the accusations of Batman's homosexual undertones and that one can make an argument that Batman's side-gig has become the nurturing of kids with difficult home lives.  The messiness complicated the picture, and so we returned to the obvious fact that all masculinity is really headed towards Batman-ness.

Frankly, with the wide variety of characters, ideas and concepts explored in the "femininity" section of week 4, showing the many ways women can be portrayed - I wasn't surprised (but I was a bit disappointed) that the section basically boiled down to "Batman and Superman are the only relevant male characters, and Superman skews less masculine on our testing platform.  Oh, and by the way, even the person who wrote the test has kind of disavowed it as a mistake, but we just used it for two weeks' worth of discussion."

What the course wants to do is get us to think about constructs of gender, and I guess in week 5, when it had a chance to flip the script and also examine masculinity from a non-stereotypical perspective, the instructor chose to barely explore the idea.

As I recalled from my undergrad days of media studies, there's a lot invested in assumptions that "traditional" depictions of social constructs like "masculinity" and "femininity" are bad.  After all, questioning the status quo and blowing up archetypes is how one makes their bones and gets a career in media studies.  But as I've seen in this class, as I kind of recalled from film school - the past that the critic is referring to is never as clear-cut or stereotypical as the critic needs it to be -  but that generic model is often what is communicated to their audience.  The dynamics at play, and the countless examples that make the model a bit wobbly, are often far more complex than as presented.

For a course about blowing up sweeping generalizations, sweeping generalizations are required to make the arguments work.

And, of course, in deconstructing the symbols and elements, it's a slippery slope to pit the argument in an "us vs. them" light, suggesting connotations of "good" and "bad" during the process.

If we're going to take this apart, I'd have liked to have had the discussion for why this portrayal was acceptable and this one was not.  The course seeks to build a framework for a value system, and it seems difficult to do so in a vacuum.  I would like to dissect, for example, why some portrayals of masculinity are considered preposterous - but seemingly only when applied to less popular characters.  Or why that mode of masculinity should not be considered valid.  There's probably a way to do this without feeling as if your classmates are working through issues they developed as unpopular kids in middle school.  I'd prefer someone actually look at the wider media and culture and how the trends reflected in comics were considered of value - and not just attack those opinions because they do not match the specific values that suggest a course on gender through comic books is relevant.**

In a traditionally smaller course, the discussions could occur in a classroom or online discussion.  Here - we're getting pages of "GIF responses" of meme-like images taking up page after page of choppily moving images of characters I vaguely recognize from ads for TV shows I don't watch with that white meme text on them.

I like a good Philosoraptor image as much as the next guy, or funny GIF, but that's not really critical or scholarly discussion.  Nor is typing "THIS!!!!" in all caps.  If we're looking to MOOCs to replace classroom learning "THIS!!!!" is not it.

I've got one week left, and I'm hoping I make it.

Wish me luck.

I'd like to be a proud member of that 10%, and I'll half-ass it to the finish line.

Late edit:  This article resonates quite a bit with what I'm seeing out there.  

*Pedagogically speaking, multiple choice tests basically test recall - and that does not necessarily indicate mastery, just recall.  Scaled to even a hundred students, the sort of written or project based demonstration of mastery would be impossible for a single faculty to handle.  And at no-cost, how do you fund bodies to do the assessment?

*I continue to believe the topic is important, by the way.  I'm just talking here.

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